American Orchestras: Yes, it’s a crisis (part IV)

“I am convinced that if the rate of change within an organization is less than the rate of change outside, the end is near.” – Jack Welch 

In the last twelve months the Honolulu, Syracuse, and New Mexico Symphonies have filed for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy; the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Louisville Symphony filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy; the Detroit Symphony  suffered the longest strike in the history of America Orchestras, and the Cleveland Orchestra also walked out during a brief strike in January 2010. There are stories echoing across the industry of major problems at the Baltimore, Seattle, Atlanta, New York Philharmonic, and Minnesota Orchestras. Even the settlements made in Detroit and Cleveland  have left these orchestras with substantial structural deficits and depleted endowments, with no clear plan how issues might be addressed, apart from the panacea of more fundraising. Clearly, the field is in crisis. It should be screaming for change, for new ideas. It should be discussing radical solutions.
How on earth did all this happen? How did the Philadelphia Orchestra, for instance, end up with a structural deficit of $14.5 million against an annual budget of $43.6 million and a pension liability of $43 million?
Let’s go back in time and take a considered view.  (Here, I’m indebted to the 2007-8 study done by Robert Flanagan of the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. Click here to read the full, fascinating report.)

The early orchestral organizations in the U.S. were created very much in the co-operative spirit that we find at the London Symphony and Berlin Philharmonic (both orchestras were subjects in my two last blogs). Musicians were seen as stakeholders and as members. They chose the conductor, accepted a share of net proceeds, as well as sharing in the risk.  These musicians were true entrepreneurs and divided their time between artistic and management activities. Major donors started to take an interest and invest substantially in order to cover operating deficits, to provide stability and expand activities.

Unionization became a strong shaping force with the creation in 1962 of ICSOM (the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians), which affiliated with the American Federation of Musicians in 1969.  Through such collective representation, musicians sought greater job security, guaranteed work, and benefits. They were aided in this quest by the Ford Foundation which, in 1965, began making extraordinary grants to orchestras ($85 million to 61 recipients) to improve the working conditions for musicians—a gift that arguably had long-term, if unintended, negative consequences.   Subsequent contract negotiations transformed the musicians’ jobs into positions governed by Collective Bargaining Agreements that converted compensation packages from a variable to a fixed cost. (The financial model of any orchestra in the country today will show the musicians as the biggest single cost.)
Many people criticize the unions for causing the escalation of costs and, ultimately, the current dismal state of affairs. This is unfair because, at the end of every negotiation, two parties sign the agreement – management and the union, and it is management and of course the boards, that must take full responsibility. I once asked a senior and much respected orchestra president how on earth the field ended up with the restrictive contracts we have today. His response was resigned, “They were just better at negotiation.”

Since the late 1980’s, musicians’ compensation has increased more rapidly than the wages and salaries of white-collar, blue-collar, and service workers, with a particularly competitive rush across the top-tier orchestras throughout the 1990’s. This, in turn, has fueled musicians’ major argument at negotiations that any erosion of comparative salaries will negatively affect recruitment and retention. This is, of course, a specious argument, but it still goes unchallenged.

With spiraling fixed costs and little flexibility to increase productivity (the working week is eighteen hours with a maximum of eight services), the rest of the symphony orchestra’s financial model came under extreme pressure. Back in the 1930’s, the top orchestras could cover 85% of their total budgets through earned income, with the rest at 60%. By the beginning of the 21st century, earned income for the top orchestras was in the 50th percentile, with other orchestras coming in between 45% and 52%. Today nearly all orchestras are in the 30th percentile. This is a reflection not just of the changes within the financial model but also the aggravating effect of declining audiences.

Since 1982, audience numbers have declined by 29% with the sharpest fall in the period 2002-2008, according to the National Endowment for the Arts Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. To compensate for the decline in box office revenues, orchestras have placed even greater reliance on donations and endowment draws, a particularly tempting stratagem because of the strong growth in private support between 1987—2003.   This, is turn, has totally muddled organizational relations and the financial model. It is now the fixed costs of the musicians that drive fundraising activity, and it is compensation enhancements that absorb any increases in fundraising, thus preventing the organization from contributing to its own financial stability. These factors, combined with the very bad habit of taking excess draws from endowment to meet budget shortfalls and exacerbated by the economic collapse of 2008, set in motion a perfect storm that undermines the whole field.

This is the reality.  This is what needs to be accepted and discussed. Only then can a solution perhaps be found.

Since Boards bear fiduciary responsibility for their organizations, the question has to be asked:  what has been their contribution to this situation? Where have they been during all of this? Well, lulled by ever-increasing private support for many years, they have been complicit in sanctioning excessive pay demands, agreeing to excess draws on endowment, and signing off on defined benefit plans which, down the road, became financial monsters of unfunded liability. Once private support began to decline in 2003, they found themselves hamstrung and more and more they are resorting to bankruptcy as a means of resolving intractable difficulties or, in the case of Chapter 11, creating “flexibility” for change.

And what about all of those great philanthropists and foundations which have been loyal for so long? I have been talking recently with some major donors and leaders prominent in the orchestra world not just about Philadelphia and Detroit but the field as a whole. I have learnt a great deal from these discussions. Donors are feeling fatigued by orchestras – the constant demands, the needs, “Bridge Funds” leading nowhere, the on-going and unresolved problems. They are questioning the role of “orchestra monoliths” whose consumption of a community’s philanthropic wealth is disproportionate to the value they produce. They are questioning musicians’ passivity within the symphonic organization and the community when, in fact, it is musicians’ leadership and initiative that will be needed to make real change happen. They are asking these questions with a degree of serious concern that should make everyone think creatively about relationship, structure, and community for the future. Why? Because these investors are rethinking their priorities.

There are no sustainable orchestral models in this country that the field can point to and emulate. There are a few isolated examples of individual success, but this success is the result of a unique set of circumstances that apply only to an individual community. I believe it is the European model that the U.S. can best learn from. The great examples are the London Symphony and the Berlin Philharmonic.  And don’t dismiss these models as not applicable because they receive some form of government subsidy. What matters is how orchestras make use of their resources—whether a government subsidy or privately raised endowment. What matters is how orchestras justify the support they receive, that is to say, their legitimacy in the community. As Alex Ross said in The New Yorker, “Every orchestra survives locally.”

An orchestra’s legitimacy hinges on every facet of its organization, from its programmes to its community engagement efforts, from its Board representation to its behaviors and beliefs. Legitimacy is no longer conferred simply because an orchestra plays well. Yet, many orchestras are so inwardly focused, so resistant to new ideas and new models, so unwilling to question programmes that are way past their expiration date, that they inadvertently shut them out from the lives of their communities.

It is time for a thorough reexamination.

London and Berlin are all about reinvention and rejuvenation. Their musicians are empowered and are seen as major stakeholders. The old employer/employee relationship does not exist. The orchestras have reached out into their communities and engaged. Engaged at the levels of schools and teaching teachers, engaged with social issues of immigration, engaged in a pro-active way in creative projects for kids working with inspirational musicians from their orchestra. The musicians govern; they are at the centre of planning, at the centre of strategy. The old autocracy of the Music Director doesn’t exist. The orchestra is not dependent on the sacred vision of one individual but on the collective energy of all musicians. Productivity and flexibility are high and costs are much leaner than top U.S. orchestras. And Berlin and London work with the best, having Sir Simon Rattle and Valery Gergiev at their respective helms, but in defined, contained roles specific to individual projects. The Boards are streamlined fiduciary committees with musicians in the majority. Leadership has been redefined. The work of the orchestras is energized and contemporary. These ensembles have a sustainable future.
Can American orchestras let go of their outdated and orthodox models? Can they look over the horizon to other ideas? After all, we are all looking to them to maintain this great and wonderful art form, which we all love and wish to see flourish.

Postscript: Click here watch a panel discussion in which I took part on the subject of American Orchestras: Endangered Species. It was presented by New York’s WQXR on May 3.

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45 Responses to American Orchestras: Yes, it’s a crisis (part IV)

  1. You mention that the Europeans are providing the best models for running orchestras, and add the following very interesting comment:

    “And don’t dismiss these models as not applicable because they receive some form of government subsidy. What matters is how orchestras make use of their resources—whether a government subsidy or privately raised endowment.”

    Actually, European orchestras are doing better exactly because the are subsidized. In fact, almost all of them are owned and operated by the government. Here are a few reasons their public funding system works better:

    1. Funding is very consistent because it is an established part of government budgets (which are far more stable than donations by the wealthy.)
    2. Governments do a better job of controlling costs because they generally bargain with all of the country’s orchestras at once.
    3. Governments have an inherent desire to connect their cultural institutions with the public (the voters) through outreach programs.
    4. The governments see an inherent connection between culture and education and organize their orchestras along those lines.
    5. Governments fund all areas of the arts and thus make sure that orchestras receive their due share but not more. (Orchestras are not allowed to hog resources like they do in the USA.)
    6. Governments make sure that all regions of their country have decent orchestras, not just the areas where wealthy donors are concentrated.
    7. Subsidies allow the ticket prices to be far more reasonable, thus allowing the arts to reach a much wider demographic.
    8. The subsidies allow for more independence from the market thus allowing for a better balance with unusual programming and new music.

    Thank you for the interesting post.

  2. Karen Schnackenberg says:

    I just want to correct one factual error — not that it susbstantially impacts your argurment other than to put one of the orchestra crisis’ you mention into a context of it’s proper place in history. The former Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra had the longest strike in the history of American orchestras — it was for the entire 1987-88 season. This was a full-time job September through May, with the usual schedule of day time rehearsals and a weekend series of repeat concerts for one program. The orchestra was shut down in July, 1988, when the board dissolved the corporation. It was replaced with a part-time, mostly night-time orchestra called the Oklahoma City Philharmonic.

    Thank you for your attention,

    Karen Schnackenberg
    Former Chair
    OSO Orchestra Committee

  3. R. W. F. says:

    Is there not perhaps a chance that there has also been a very poor crop of orchestra managers taking the helm at these orchestras? You seem to suggest that management has preformed perfectly during all of this and that management has been the only group with virtuous, true and pristine motives here. You seem to automatically assume that management is always right through all of this. You build your premise upon that presupposition that management holds all of the sound views and exclusively possesses the only vested interest in improving all things for orchestras. Could it not be that there is also a need for a new model for those in the management ranks? Perhaps boards should consider hiring management that actually likes music? Do you not also think that there might be certain intrinsic benefits to also having board members who have actually attended orchestra concerts? There are now famed and very true stories of the former chairman of the board of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Jim Nicholson, who after only weeks of taking on the position stood before the orchestra and stated that he had actually never ever been to a DSO subscription concert. Or perhaps the now famous question asked by the current chairman of the DSO board to the concert master of the DSO “And what is it that you do with in the orchestra”. Both of these now legendary comments have been personally confirmed to me by several musicians in the DSO…including Emmanuelle Boisvert herself. It seems quite a poor showing to me that management would be so disconnected from their orchestra. So the question stands, do your statements also extend a new model for the role of management, or do they only and exclusively propose a new role model for just the musicians? Management is not innocent in all of this, and in my view may actually be the primary propagator of the problems that you articulate.

    • roedeo says:

      Hm. Not my read. And I quote from the author:

      This is unfair because, at the end of every negotiation, two parties sign the agreement – management and the union, and it is management and of course the boards, that must take full responsibility. I once asked a senior and much respected orchestra president how on earth the field ended up with the restrictive contracts we have today. His response was resigned, “They were just better at negotiation.”

  4. MegaSheilaE says:

    Right on Tony! As a major donor and leader, I applaud your willingness to speak truth to power. What would we do without the New England Conservatory–willing to step far, far outside its traditional educator role for today’s young musicians (tomorrow’s buskers).

    • Bill Anderson says:

      As the first comment on the side of supposed donors, your comment seems rather insulting. First of all, why would you say “Tomorrows buskers”? If that’s what you see as the future and you are a donor (I notice you didn’t say symphony lover, music lover, or even subscriber), you should get to know the musicians instead of the board. They are talented, complex, intelligent, driven, thick-skinned (by need) artists who deserve to be well paid in accordance with the level of orchestra they are in. Because they want to protect their incomes doesn’t make them bad people.
      Also, Tony speaking “truth to power” is difficult for me to understand, considering the musicians have very little control over so many things. If wealthy patrons are annoyed with them, as happened in The Florida Philharmonic, I believe, several years ago, they can withdraw all support and torpedo the careers of a hundred people in a tantrum, as happened when the money that could have saved The Florida Phil went to Cleveland instead.
      As a graduate of NEC who has played with orchestras in many cities and seen the problems with boards attitudes as well as problems with musicians attitudes, I think the “telling it like it is” tough guy stance needs to be tamped down, and those who really love orchestras and classical music, as well as musicians, should step forward. There are answers that don’t have to oppose groups; when that happens, everybody loses.

      • MegaSheilaE says:

        I’m with you 100% Bill, this unfortunately was just a poorly executed sarcastic comment. -Sheila

      • Jason says:

        I have two questions that are intended to provoke thought, not defensiveness, so here we go:

        ————-

        1) You write that “They [the musicians] are talented, complex, intelligent, driven, thick-skinned (by need) artists who deserve to be well paid in accordance with the level of orchestra they are in.” Now, I haven’t heard anyone state or imply that musicians are not talented or complex or intelligent or driven or even thick-skinned (BTW, I’m taking as an obvious truth that Detroit is one of the 10 ten orchestras in the country [pic], so we don’t need to argue whether the musicians are talented, smart, extraordinary, etc.). What I have read, heard, and discovered on my own is that the level of compensation received by top-tier orchestra musicians is, in the current orchestral system, unsustainable.

        Consider this: According to Tony, and this is confirmed by several sources that I have read recently, “Today nearly all orchestras are in the 30th percentile” when it comes to earned income; this, of course, means that the other 70% of income necessary for the continuance of the orchestras must come from donors and/or grants. The generation of donors who give large sums of money to the arts is dying (literally) and the up-and-coming donors tend to give smaller amounts to a greater variety of causes. Further, many grant-awarding institutions have cut back on their giving, both because of consolidation out of communities and because of, again, a more diverse array of causes to which they can donate.

        To reiterate: orchestras (and, actually, almost all arts organizations) need to find ~70% of their incomes from donors and granting organizations. Taking this fact into consideration as we move forward:

        Prior to the labor strike, the starting salary for a musician in the Detroit Symphony was $104,650 and there were 96 full-time musicians. This means that, at a minimum, the DSO was paying $10,046,400 in salaries annually. Post-settlement, the new starting salary will be $79,000 and go up to $82,900 in the third and final year of the contract. With a decrease to 81 full-time musicians, this coming season, the DSO will pay, minimum, $6,399,000 – and of course, this is lower than what will actually be paid since most musicians in the DSO are not just starting in the organizations. Add to this that the musicians are contracted for only 40 weeks of the year (keep in mind that the working week is eighteen hours with a maximum of eight services) and will also have 4 weeks of paid vacation time.

        So, back to my quote of what you wrote: the musicians are “artists who deserve to be well paid in accordance with the level of orchestra they are in.” I TOTALLY, TOTALLY, TOTALLY AGREE. However, I’m struggling to find any other employees of any other industry who are paid so incredibly well — this coming season, starting musicians in the DSO who work 18 hours per week for 40 weeks at $79,000 will make $109.72 per hour. $109.72 PER HOUR?!? I am not convinced that they are being underpaid! (Contract information source)

        ————-

        2) You write that “…considering the musicians have very little control over so many things.”

        Other than keeping the workweek to 18 hours with a maximum of 8 services, being the ones who, if they don’t show up, can cancel a concert, and produce the sound and quality that is the magic of every orchestra, you’re right … what control do musicians have? I’m willing to bet that if any musician were to go to his/her orchestra’s board to volunteer his/her time and services to help with the development efforts, that board would gladly accept and get him/her started right away. Having a hand in finding that 70% of income that pays one’s salary – now THAT is control! How about going into the community to help sell tickets to an upcoming performance? How about volunteering your time before or after shows to go into schools to talk with students about what they’ll be hearing on Friday night or what they heard this past weekend? There are so many ways to give yourself more control; it just requires giving of yourself as well as expecting compensation.

        ————-

        3) You write that “If wealthy patrons are annoyed with them [the musicians], as happened in [sic] The Florida Philharmonic, I believe, several years ago, they can withdraw all support and torpedo the careers of a hundred people in a tantrum, as happened when the money that could have saved The Florida Phil went to Cleveland instead.”

        Where is it written that a donor must, year after year, give to the same charity? Where has it been decreed that donors who fall out of love with an organization must continue blindly giving just because that’s what they’ve done in the past? A donor becoming annoyed with an organization and deciding to give elsewhere is not only NOT “a tantrum,” as you so inflammatorily exclaimed, it is their absolute right. It is their money to give where they feel is appropriate, or to not give at all. If the actions of the musicians cause a donor to withhold his/her money, for whatever reason, then it is not the donor who has “torpedo[ed] the careers of a hundred people in a tantrum,” but rather the actions of the musicians in – forgive the cliché – biting the hand that feeds them. To think that donors, literally the lifeblood of the arts world, are solely responsible – while the participants in the organization are free of any guilt – for the continued survival of an organization is simply conceited, close-minded, and scary.

        If you’re still reading at this point, my views are my own and I have come to them through a very interesting path. I started as a music educator, then became a professional violinist and toured internationally 40+ weeks per year as an AFM member under an AFM collective bargaining agreement, and now am pursuing a dual MBA & MA in Arts Administration degree at the University of Cincinnati (College-Conservatory of Music and College of Business).

        There is no doubt in my mind that orchestras will survive long into the future; however, this survival is going to take communication, cooperation, and – yes – sacrifices by all stakeholders.

      • jasonhurwitz says:

        I have two questions that are intended to provoke thought, not defensiveness, so here we go:

        ————-

        1) You write that “They [the musicians] are talented, complex, intelligent, driven, thick-skinned (by need) artists who deserve to be well paid in accordance with the level of orchestra they are in.” Now, I haven’t heard anyone state or imply that musicians are not talented or complex or intelligent or driven or even thick-skinned (BTW, I’m taking as an obvious truth that Detroit is one of the 10 ten orchestras in the country [pic], so we don’t need to argue whether the musicians are talented, smart, extraordinary, etc.). What I have read, heard, and discovered on my own is that the level of compensation received by top-tier orchestra musicians is, in the current orchestral system, unsustainable.

        Consider this: According to Tony, and this is confirmed by several sources that I have read recently, “Today nearly all orchestras are in the 30th percentile” when it comes to earned income; this, of course, means that the other 70% of income necessary for the continuance of the orchestras must come from donors and/or grants. The generation of donors who give large sums of money to the arts is dying (literally) and the up-and-coming donors tend to give smaller amounts to a greater variety of causes. Further, many grant-awarding institutions have cut back on their giving, both because of consolidation out of communities and because of, again, a more diverse array of causes to which they can donate.

        To reiterate: orchestras (and, actually, almost all arts organizations) need to find ~70% of their incomes from donors and granting organizations. Taking this fact into consideration as we move forward:

        Prior to the labor strike, the starting salary for a musician in the Detroit Symphony was $104,650 and there were 96 full-time musicians. This means that, at a minimum, the DSO was paying $10,046,400 in salaries annually. Post-settlement, the new starting salary will be $79,000 and go up to $82,900 in the third and final year of the contract. With a decrease to 81 full-time musicians, this coming season, the DSO will pay, minimum, $6,399,000 – and of course, this is lower than what will actually be paid since most musicians in the DSO are not just starting in the organization. Add to this that the musicians are contracted for only 40 weeks of the year (keep in mind that the working week is eighteen hours with a maximum of eight services) and will also have 4 weeks of paid vacation time.

        So, back to my quote of what you wrote: the musicians are “artists who deserve to be well paid in accordance with the level of orchestra they are in.” I TOTALLY, TOTALLY, TOTALLY AGREE. However, I’m struggling to find any other employees of any other industry who are paid so incredibly well — this coming season, starting musicians in the DSO who work 18 hours per week for 40 weeks at $79,000 will make $109.72 per hour. $109.72 PER HOUR?!? I am not convinced that they are being underpaid! (Contract information source)

        ————-

        2) You write that “…considering the musicians have very little control over so many things.”

        Other than keeping the workweek to 18 hours with a maximum of 8 services, being the ones who, if they don’t show up, can cancel a concert, and produce the sound and quality that is the magic of every orchestra, you’re right … what control do musicians have? I’m willing to bet that if any musician were to go to his/her orchestra’s board to volunteer his/her time and services to help with the development efforts, that board would gladly accept and get him/her started right away. Having a hand in finding that 70% of income that pays one’s salary – now THAT is control! How about going into the community to help sell tickets to an upcoming performance? How about volunteering your time before or after shows to go into schools to talk with students about what they’ll be hearing on Friday night or what they heard this past weekend? There are so many ways to give yourself more control; it just requires giving of yourself as well as expecting compensation.

        ————-

        3) You write that “If wealthy patrons are annoyed with them [the musicians], as happened in [sic] The Florida Philharmonic, I believe, several years ago, they can withdraw all support and torpedo the careers of a hundred people in a tantrum, as happened when the money that could have saved The Florida Phil went to Cleveland instead.”

        Where is it written that a donor must, year after year, give to the same charity? Where has it been decreed that donors who fall out of love with an organization must continue blindly giving just because that’s what they’ve done in the past? A donor becoming annoyed with an organization and deciding to give elsewhere is not only NOT “a tantrum,” as you so inflammatorily exclaimed, it is their absolute right. It is their money to give where they feel is appropriate, or to not give at all. If the actions of the musicians cause a donor to withhold his/her money, for whatever reason, then it is not the donor who has “torpedo[ed] the careers of a hundred people in a tantrum,” but rather the actions of the musicians in – forgive the cliché – biting the hand that feeds them. To think that donors, literally the lifeblood of the arts world, are solely responsible – while the participants in the organization are free of any guilt – for the continued survival of an organization is simply conceited, close-minded, and scary.

        If you’re still reading at this point, my views are my own and I have come to them through a very interesting path. I started as a music educator, then became a professional violinist and toured internationally 40+ weeks per year as an AFM member under an AFM collective bargaining agreement, and now am pursuing a dual MBA & MA in Arts Administration degree at the University of Cincinnati (College-Conservatory of Music and College of Business).

        There is no doubt in my mind that orchestras will survive long into the future; however, this survival is going to take communication, cooperation, and – yes – sacrifices by all stakeholders.

  5. NYMike says:

    First off – all members of ICSOM were already AFM members in their respective locals where their orchestras played. ICSOM was subsequently accepted and became the first Player Conference within the AFM, to be followed by RMA (Recording Musicians Ass’n), ROPA (Regional Orchestra Professional Ass’n), TMA (Theatre Musicians Ass’n), etc.

    Secondly – I repost my Facebook thread response on your WQXR appearance:
    Woodcock’s example last night of the Berlin Philharmonic’s musicians not being paid for their digital concert hall was disingenuous. Their country, state and city supported income is among the highest anywhere. The funding affords the orchestra double sets of principal players, extra rotating strings, 5-star hotels like the Essex House here in NY when on tour and the ability to afford more than one expensive instrument. They manage themselves, hire conductors, soloists and audition new players. There is no Board of musically uneducated tycoons or CEO to order them around. If they play digital concerts for promotional purposes without remuneration, it’s because THEY VOTED to do it.

    Third – As a Brit, you must know that the only full-time orchestras in London – both government- funded jobs – are the BBC and Covent Garden orchestras. LSO players (your model) run from one freelance movie scoring gig to any church or chamber venue just to make ends meet. Of course, national health and pension plans relieve these musicians of some of the burdens that are placed on American orchestra bargaining committees to achieve.

    In using the Berlin Phil and the LSO as examples for American orchestras to emulate, you have essentially compared apples to automobiles.

  6. Guest says:

    There is little actual evidence is this article showing there is in fact a crisis, let alone a labor crisis. If anything, I interpret the recent bankruptcies as a management and board leadership crisis if anything. I am very curious to the outcome of the Philly “crisis” inside a court of law.

    It’s difficult to take away anything more from this article than raising money and negotiation with unions is just too hard, it wasn’t meant to be this way originally so why should we be obligated to deal responsibly with it the way it is?

    “They were just better at negotiation?” You must be kidding.

    For a more levelheaded view: http://www.adaptistration.com/2011/05/05/relax-its-not-a-crisis/

  7. Nathan Kahn says:

    The League of American Orchestras came up with this same most tiresome mantra in 1970, in 1988, in 1995 and after 9/11, and here we are again. In 1970 they predicted the IMMINENT DEATH of orchestras like Baltimore, Pittburgh, Dallas, and guess what…they are still here. It’s the only national advocacy organization that I know of that advocates for destruction of the industry. They don’t like to report about things like the recent million dollar increase in ticket sales of Denver’s Colorado Symphony, my orchestra-the Colorado Springs Philharmonic which gets 51% of its income from tickets and has record audiences, the growing audiences in orchestras in Grand Rapids, Harrisburg, Hilton Head, Sarasota, St. Louis, Omaha, Buffalo, Los Angeles, and even in Dayton, OH where the economy is WORSE than Detroit. That sure doesn’t fit their “crisis” theme and to do so would show just how many managers and boards have breached their fiduciary responsibility as management/boards of directors. You attempt to advocate for the European model here in the US, but be assured that most don’t foresee Congress giving that sort of public funding to orchestras when we had to fight to keep NEA funding. Oh, and yes, we have gone the “stakeholder” route in US orchestras, and it was lip service. The reality is that US orchestra Executive Directors and Music Directors are not willing to let musicians decide their fate, which would be a “stakeholder” component, as they do in the Europe. So the term “stakeholder” here in the US is bogus, in my opinion. Go read Ivan Katz’s article in the Huffington Post on what is REALLY going on with the Philadelphia bankruptcy. It is a bogus bankruptcy, just like our 1988 bankruptcy in the Nashville Symphony; I know, because I was at the table when the NSO admitted so. Honolulu, New Mexico are the same story as we had here in Colorado Springs. We had a board of directors who did not want to raise ANY money and they filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The following day, we, the union announced the formation of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, which has been doing quite well ever since. So is it a crisis? As far as musicians and audiences, no. As far as incompetent and lazy managers and do nothing boards, yes. Here in Colorado Springs, and most recently in Honolulu, new orchestra organizations were formed that included board members who were and are passionate about classical music, and were not just sitting on a board to enhance their social/business prestige. So…a message to these kinds of managers and boards: The music will go on, with or without you.

    • Before people debate whether or not there is a crisis, they might try to define what they mean by crisis. The low pay in ROPA orchestras alone might define a crisis situation. 18 of the musicians in the NMSO were paid only $7800 per year. (And the orchestra still went bankrupt.) How many pay levels are there in Colorado Springs, what are they paid, and how many are in each group? I wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers were ridiculously low for many of the musicians. If there is no crisis, it might be because things have never risen to the level in many ROPA orchestras that they could even have much of a crisis. When the musicians are paid like they were in NM, the orchestra can hardly even call itself professional. You can’t have a crisis when little significant has even been built in the first place.

  8. guidodarezzo says:

    “With spiraling fixed costs and little flexibility to increase productivity (the working week is eighteen hours with a maximum of eight services)”

    Really? This canard from someone who purports to have worked professionally as a musician in England? Did Mr. Woodcock play his instrument each day only for the two hours he was on stage? Do his NEC students only play their instruments for the one hour each week they have a private lesson? Any professional worthy of the name plays her instrument in public a fraction of the time she is refining her art in her studio at home.

    There are arguments to be made, but please, let’s have them based on reality. Mr. Woodcock employs the word “specious”, perhaps this was his way of showing he understands its meaning.

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  10. David Schneck says:

    I have seen orchestra managers go from one orchestra to another, muck up things, and still have another job ruining the next orchestra as well. If a musician were to screw up as badly, he or she would be sent packing. Sometimes I feel that the orchestra itself is a necessary evil in order to have star conductors and socials for boards. In Europe, many orchestras have a say in which conductor is hired. That is pretty much unheard of in this country. In most childrens concerts (excepting those of David Amram) the high point is when three or four kids are encouraged to come up to the podium and “conduct” the orchestra. If there are 2000 children in the audience, there are 1996 kids who leave with the realization that they missed out on the really important thing: to be the conductor. Usually, this takes place at the end of the concert, so that is what they take home with them.
    Also, there is an unwillingness for orchestra managers to consider that it is not enough for the orchestra to be in the music section of the newspaper (or news service). Why cant orchestras give a few concerts in homeless shelters? One picture of a homeless mother with her child with a look of hope on her face because she is watching an orchestra play Beethoven’s fifth symphony ( which can be performed with a skeleton crew) would do more for an orchestra’s status in the community than 50 concerts in a concert hall because it would get the orchestra off the music page onto the community page. Orchestras must be part of the community in order to survive. Until there is a willingness to think outside the box on the part of the powers that be, we can look forward to an aging audience whos ranks will thin out as time goes on.
    To hear the director of the NEC pontificate about the relationship between musicians and their bosses is humorous because MAYBE five percent of their graduates actually wind up making a living as professional musicians.

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  13. MNJohn says:

    Since the late 1980’s, musicians’ compensation has increased more rapidly than the wages and salaries of white-collar, blue-collar, and service workers, with a particularly competitive rush across the top-tier orchestras throughout the 1990’s.

    what is your source for this info? how have salaries for executive directors of these same orchestras fared during this same period?

    and do you really want to compare professional orchestral musicians to service workers? How many service workers begin their training as early as age 4 and are required to provide up to a half a million dollars in personal equipment?

    As the director of one of the premier music schools in this country, do you really want to argue that musicians are overpaid? What else are YOU doing to insure that musicians will not only have a job when they graduate ,but one that will pay a living wage not only when they are in their 20′s and single but in their 40′s with families?

    I will agree that one of the great benefits of the London and Berlin models is that the musicians hire the executive directors and those directors are responsible to the musicians- that’s the real problem with orchestral organizational structure in this country. Too many managers and board members that don’t really understand ( or like ) music.

    Starting your comments with a quote from Jack Welch pretty much sets the tone about how you feel about the “workers”

    • fireandair says:

      Name one service worker who can afford a half million dollars of personal equipment. Including ones who are also raising families on salaries that are fractions of what is made by people who can afford half-million dollar items of personal equipment.

      I am having a hard time crying for the financial tribulations of people who can either afford any one thing that costs $500,000 or who can even be approved for a loan for one.

      I am having a far easier time laughing at people who can and who are also trying to “connect” and be “relevant” to the culture of people for whom buying anything that costs 20% of that is a pipe dream.

      Like I said, my devotion to the Phila goes blood-deep, but if these are the best arguments that can be made in their favor to people who they seek to appeal to to save their own skins … well, they need new arguments.

  14. NEC Alumnus says:

    There’s a growing number of NEC alumni opposed to Tony Woodcock’s use of NEC to push a personal agenda. Check out the Friends of NEC blog for an alternate view.

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  18. I just read the HuffPo article by Ivan Katz recommended above by Nathan Kahn. It says the highest paid member of the Philadelphia Orchestra is a trumpeter who receives $296,153 per year. I assume this must be David Bilger. You can hear him playing a solo part with the orchestra here. He is obviously an excellent musician:

    I am a very strong supporter of musicians unions, and I think as a whole the pay the members in Philly make are in line with international norms. On the other hand, I have trouble understanding why a trumpeter should receive so much. I disagree that this is in line with supply and demand. There are a lot of great trumpet players out there. Pay like that drains resources from other parts of our cultural lives that are desperately short of funds such as regional orchestras and new music performances.

  19. I wanted to balance my comments above with information showing how steeply management salaries have risen, while orchestra musicians are being asked to accept less and less. In FY2009 the former President and CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra was piad $447,953.
    Below are some examples of other high salaries for arts exectuives in 2009, as reported in the New York Times. See:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/26/arts/26comp.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all
    Considering these extravagant numbers we needn’t heed simplistic whining that these managers might have seen some relatively small reductions in the last couple years:
    * Reynold Levy’s annual compensation to run Lincoln Center tops $1 million.
    * Carnegie Hall pays Clive Gillinson more than $800,000.
    * Glenn D. Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, earned $2.7 million in the year that ended in June 2008, including several one-time bonuses and the cost of his apartment in the tower beside the museum.
    * Occasionally institutions will also pay bonuses tied to performance or longevity, like the $3.25 million given in 2006 to Philippe de Montebello to recognize his 30-year service to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (His aristocratic name fits well with America’s neo-feudalistic form of arts funding.)
    * On top of his $940,000 salary, Michael Kaiser of the Kennedy Center earned a $150,000 bonus, as well as other benefits, for 2009.
    * Zarin Mehta’s most recent compensation, for fiscal year 2010, is $807,500. In the fiscal year ending in August 2008 he earned 2.67 million. This reflected his salary in addition to eight years of accumulated deferred compensation.
    * Timothy Rub, the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art earns $450,00.
    * George Steel, the general manager and artistic director of New York City Opera receives $360,000 – and from an opera house that just delayed announcement of its next season due to a lack of funds.

  20. Henry Peyrebrune says:

    Dear Mr. Woodcock,

    As an NEC alumnus and a member of a major orchestra (Cleveland), I feel compelled to respond to your post. After hacking my way through the rhetorical overgrowth, I find four salient points that those of us in American orchestras would do well to heed.

    Donors are feeling fatigued by orchestras… these investors are rethinking their priorities. ”

    There are a few isolated examples of individual success, but this success is the result of a unique set of circumstances that apply only to an individual community. “Every orchestra survives locally.”

    An orchestra’s legitimacy hinges on every facet of its organization, from its programmes to its community engagement efforts, from its Board representation to its behaviors and beliefs. Legitimacy is no longer conferred simply because an orchestra plays well. ”

    Finally, I agree with your description of what a successful future looks like.

    Their musicians are empowered and are seen as major stakeholders. The old employer/employee relationship does not exist. The orchestras have reached out into their communities and engaged.

    These are all excellent points that challenge conventional thinking, but may seem self-evident to outsiders. We need to lift our gaze beyond the details of what “we’ve always done” and engage these principles.

    However, the rest of the post is noise, shall we say, and it needs a great deal of clarification because it overshadows the important points you make.

    Bob Flanagan’s paper that you cite is deeply flawed for a number of reasons. Its biggest problem is that he completely ignores the historical context in which ICSOM and the Ford Foundation acted.

    In brief, in 1960 there were only a handful of orchestras that paid even a moderate middle-class wage. Leaders of government, philanthropy, business and academia were in agreement that the US needed to demonstrate its worth as a civilization by proving itself the cultural equal of Europe and the Soviet Union. The goal was to give Americans all across the country access to high level, full-time professional performing arts in their own communities. The Rockefeller panel on the arts set a goal of 50 full-time orchestras. We got to where we are on purpose. I’ve written in more detail on this topic here.

    Of course, it is undeniable that this sense of purpose from the leaders of society no longer exists.

    Flanagan’s comparisons of wage growth over the period are also flawed because he compares symphony musicians at the top tier of performing artist wage levels with the entire cohort of white collar workers. Surely, a comparison of the top tier of highly skilled white collar workers would show a comparable rate of increase.

    Nevertheless, the salient point is that the enthusiastic support that made that growth possible -the support that in essence said that we as a society value orchestral musicians as much as we value people at the top of other fields – has attenuated.

    The citation from the NEA Arts Participation is highly misleading. There has definitively NOT been a 29% drop in classical music audiences. The percentage of the adult population that participates in classical music audiences has shrunk, but it’s a percentage of a growing population. Despite a drop since 2002, the actual number of participants was roughly the same in 1982 and 2008. This is still a problem, but it’s a problem of a different order. Whether the cause was sloppiness or sensationalism, your characterization is not worthy of the serious discussion that needs to be had.

    Two more brief points for context – you say that musicians are the single biggest cost in the structure of any orchestra. Well, it’s an orchestra! What else do you think should be the biggest expense? It’s worth noting that artistic expenses did not increase as a proportion of total expenses for the orchestras Flanagan studied.

    You also cite Berlin as a model, noting that its “costs are much leaner than top U.S. orchestras.” Yet, it pays a minimum salary of 90,000 euros ($133,000) to 128 musicians, and it regularly engages the top conductors and soloists of the world. Certainly, that leanness does not come from the artistic side of the budget.

    Lastly, I wholeheartedly agree with you that musicians need to be seen as stakeholders, instead of merely as employees. We need to take responsibility for our orchestras. But the reality is that this is no simple change. It involves changing mindsets and skillsets in well-established institutions. It involves those currently having control over these institutions giving up some of that control. It involves musicians accepting responsibility for the consequences of things we do control. All this must take place in an environment with no financial margin for error. And errors happen, inevitably.

    It’s easy to make calls for sweeping change and new models. Actually leading change – incremental, but ongoing change – towards solving these problems is another matter. We can begin the process, but let’s skip the shout of crisis and the distorted supporting arguments. The facts are brutal enough and they support the need for your ideal of an engaged, responsive orchestra.

  21. fireandair says:

    Oh, what I could say about all this. I doubt it would all be coherent or internally consistent.

    1) Speaking as someone who was raised in a highly musical family that loved classical and opera, but which was nonetheless almost unimaginably blue collar, hearing unionized workers who make two hundred grand a year compare themselves to coal miners makes my eyes cross. And yes, I’ve heard comparisons like that. Steam comes out of my ear when I do. These are the sorts of comparisons that can only be made by truly spoiled people.

    2) Hearing about orchestras needing to connect with their communities while at the same time acting like they are so elevated above them that they DESERVE and are ENTITLED TO extremely high and permanently secured salaries makes steam come out of the other ear. I am someone who feels a visceral devotion to and love of the Philadelphia Orchestra that borders on the unbalanced. I LOVE THAT ORCHESTRA. They are my hometown band. I’ll defend them like a 10lb mother cat taking on a police dog. They are the people my mom’s violin teacher played for. I know their names. I know their hobbies. I’m a GROUPIE.

    But I’ve known far too many bright kids who worked their asses off in college to get computer degrees who are now bussing tables. Why do these musicians think that alone among everyone in “the community,” they are supposed to be exempt from having to be ready to shift their careers? I’ve seen billboard that say “KNOW LINUX? WE’RE HIRING!” that look exactly like other billboards that say “NOW HIRING JANITORIAL STAFF.” Those kids who learned linux are also incredibly smart, hardworking, and thought they were going into something stable and guaranteed, too. NO ONE is ENTITLED to a damn thing except being born and getting a spadeful of dirt in the face after you die. Those musicians are no different when it comes to getting a grip on that basic fact of life. And if they want to act like they are so much more important than that wage-slave kid who knows linux that they deserve a secure six-figure salary during the worst depression since Herbert Hoover while he’s eating ramen, then they can’t be surprised when he rips up their flyer and throws it in the trash when it shows up in his mailbox.

    3) This current implosion of orchestras has nearly nothing to do with WHAT music is played. I’m sick of seeing this whole conversation boil down to “it’s because they play that weird stuff!” versus “If only they played the weird stuff, this wouldn’t have happened!” That is nothing but people using the current crisis as a way to have their own private argument. “Weirdos listen to that goofy modern stuff!” “They do not! I listen to it, and I’m COOL!” STFU. This is a basic institutional and procedural failure here. Stop using it as a framework to hang your junior high bitchfests onto.

    4) It’s ridiculous for these orchestras to talk about engaging with their communities when they can’t even engage with themselves. What creative input DO the musicians have, really? Why did it take a goddamned lightning strike on the performance venue for Time for Three to actually get the eff up on stage with the Phila? They had THAT LEVEL of creative energy and innovation in their own freaking orchestra and they didn’t USE IT?! Are they nuts?

    How many other informal jam-session groups are humming happily away in that orchestra totally unknown and unexploited by them? What are the trombone player, two cellists, one of the flute players, and a guy from percussion doing on the weekends at one of their backyard barbecues? What will be needed to get THEM on stage? A nuclear strike?

    The hell with getting pop stars to share the stage — these damn organizations aren’t even using the creative energies of their own musicians! They have 104 people up there with ideas and they aren’t using them. Why not a straight concert of the Bach Double with Kim and Kang, followed by a couple of the other worker-bee violinists rocking it up on an electric? You KNOW they’re doing it. Why not a program of some Brahms followed by a salsa-flavored riff off of the same piece by the fourth horn, a cello, one of the violas, and maybe a vibraphone?

    Is it because the conductor wouldn’t be seen as the Godlike Presence Of Control? Is it because the principals would be irked at seeing the worker bees getting the biggest applause? Is it because it would violate the apparent mantra of the orchestra, which is that everyone be as faceless and anonymous and interchangeable as possible? What?

    *sigh* Sorry. I DO publicity for a nonprofit that was created as a service organization, and the single most significant message that must be sent at all times is WE ARE YOU. It disgusts me to see such a cadre of wonderful, talented, inspiring people as the Philadelphia Orchestra, with decades of illustrious history and achievement and a HUGE spot dead center of my heart, just rotting from the inside because of this garbage.

    • Lizzie PB says:

      Very late to the party here, but fireandair, would you please run my orchestra — or any orchestra. You’re right on the money!

  22. Robert Boardman says:

    Well written and chock full of good facts. Not mentioned are the 2 most financially successful orchestras in the USA: the Boston Symphony and the LAPhil. What do they both have in common besides large metro areas and arts attending cultures? Enormous summer venues with crowds of 18,000 ticket buyers, and a venue they lease to Dave Matthews, James Taylor, etc = revenue. There’s more to be said here too.

    Though I agree overall with the thesis and the innovations that can come through adapting to the times, I disagree slightly on 3 points: European funding, current conditions, and the notion that the crisis being experienced is exceptional.

    1.) Europeans ascribe greater value to the orchestra, art music, and the arts overall and they are less willing to cut those programs than in the USA – some orchestras there receive 95% of their funds from the government whereas in the USA it might be 1%.

    2.) I view the current crisis as a microcosm of the economy in general, the disappearing middle class, the assault on unions and pensions, and the updraft of wealth to fewer and fewer Americans since the 1980s.

    3.) The story of the orchestra in America has always, always, always been an expensive venture in perpetual crisis. The only time that it was not was before 1900 when orchestras were basically giant volunteer rock bands that split the cash from the ticket sales at the door – before the era when boards and the wealthy few jumped in wanting to make America culturally respectable.

    • fireandair says:

      The story of the arts in most cultures has been a story of perpetual crisis, I sometimes think. I found the best quote from a long letter written by a Londoner dude back in the Baroque period when Haendel was writing his best stuff in the city and Senesino was singing it all — what we think of as the golden heyday of opera — saying exactly the same thing. That the whole enterprise was swimming in red ink and that it was an unfair burden upon what he called “Persons of Quality” to be asked to support it over and over. :-(

    • fireandair says:

      Here it is, from April 1719 by Vanbrugh (with the Haymarket of course) talking about opera:

      ” … it seems very strange that this great and opulent City hath not been able to support Publick Spectacles of this sort for any considerable time. The reason of which seems to be cheifly that they have been hitherto carryed on upon a narrow Bottom of Temporary Contributions Extreamly Burthensome to the People of Quality … ”

      He goes on to say that as the performances better gauge and match public taste, and as the public becomes more and more accustomed to better taste, this is less likely to be a problem in his future. Yikes.

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  26. Shane says:

    The article mentions substantial declines in audiences. No doubt, a lot of performers came in and blamed management. My response: young people -generally speaking- will not pay to hear Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Vivaldi, et cetera.

    If classical music does not actively -and specifically- engage -and target- young people, right now, today, the orchestra will cease to exist.

    You can blame management all you like. It’s about the music. Always has been, always will be.

  27. Ferdinand N says:

    Over the past 20 years or so, I’ve seen how American symphony orchestras have bent over backwards to appeal to young people and to the masses, and I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t help that much in the long run. The basic problem is that Joe Average has a different idea of what music is, and has a sense of what basic sound texture he’s attracted to. In addition, Joe Average associates his or her music with the milieu they are in. These are very strong socializing factors that are difficult to alter. Education helps, but let’s be honest, it’s failing to recruit very many new listeners of classical music. Realizing that the basic sound texture of the orchestra will do little to lure the Average family into the concert hall, I think it’s pretty much a waste of time for orchestras to play arrangements of Raiders of the Lost Ark, theme from Superman, highlights of Oklahoma or anything similar. When orchestras engage in trying to be liked by everyone, they lose site of their true mission, to present first-rate performances of challenging works, new and old. So, if I were director of any orchestra, I would agree to one or two pops concerts, but no more than that. Looking over recent programs of many symphony orchestras, I am appalled by the incursion of so much pop music in symphony concerts. Also, I doubt it does much to get ticket sales up. And these developments are of course bad news for composers who look to orchestras to perform and commission new works. Government subsidy will not work because Joe Average will prevent it from happening because football, country western music and reality TV is more important. No, what we need are wealthy patrons, and orchestras need to make money to prove they are worth the patronage. Finally, many orchestras need to come down in size to survive, and yes, only a handful of orchestras will be doing Mahler.

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  29. Ferdinand says:

    “Modern” composers, locking themselves increasingly in academism and intellectualism during the 2Oth century are the main responsables for de decline in public interests of orchestral music. It is that easy.

  30. Shane says:

    Isn’t it difficult to blame modern composers when their music is rarely played?

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